Is there such a thing as a perfect toy? If so, wooden toys may come the closest. Maria Montessori favored “real” toys made of natural materials like wood because they’re healthy, safe, and inspiring for children. They’re also beautiful and durable; some of the earliest toys ever discovered were made of wood.
A simple, beautifully-crafted wooden toy can capture a child’s interest without overwhelming them, and inspire their imagination without directing it.
Here are 8 reasons to choose wooden toys:
They help children focus
Research suggests that playing and learning environments featuring natural elements like wood help children concentrate, focus, and even calm down more than other types of spaces. More specifically, actually touching the wood physically calms children down, which means playing with wooden toys can have a neurological impact on a child’s brain.
A 2017 study from the National Institutes of Health found that “contact with wood induces physiological relaxation.” In an age of overstimulation and constant input, toys that promote a quieter and more sustained play environment can be enormously beneficial to young children and their cognitive development.
More uses = fewer toys
Less is typically more when it comes to toys for babies and toddlers, who can get overwhelmed by too many choices. The minimalist spaces of Montessori and Waldorf homes and classrooms show this philosophy in action; they tend to feature a narrower selection of versatile, open-ended wooden playthings.
A 2018 study gave a group of toddlers two different play environments, one with 16 toys and one with just 4, and found that “as measured by sustained play and variety of manners of play, toddlers had a greater quality of play in the Four Toy condition compared to the Sixteen Toy condition.”
Children naturally form closer bonds with playthings—and go deeper with their play—when there are fewer to choose from. The open-ended nature of wooden toys allows children to create their own ways of playing, and spend more time with a single toy.
They promote creative play—and teach cause and effect
The toy market is saturated with flashing lights, vivid colors, screens, and loud noises. Features like these offer immediate gratification for young children, but they also tend to shut down opportunities for problem-solving and imaginative play.
Because wooden toys tend to be simpler, they also support cognitive milestones in ways that flashy ones simply can’t. Around 9 months, for example, babies start to more clearly understand cause and effect: banging a block on the ground makes a noise, dropping one makes it go out of sight. A wooden toy, like a block set or a simple puzzle, distills this concept down to its essence: “when I do something, it makes something else happen as a result.”
Wooden toys also offer a beautiful, tactile, open-ended “blank canvas” for a child to explore at their own pace and on their own terms. The extra bells and whistles that can make other toys more instantly appealing tend to restrict and direct how children play with them.
They’re a quiet introduction to the real world
Toys, in many ways, are an introduction to how the physical world works: they’re among the first objects children touch, mouth, and play with. Simple wooden toys teach quiet, calm lessons in physics, cause and effect, object permanence, creativity, problem-solving, and many other foundational topics.
Yes, a determined baby or toddler can make noise out of anything 🙃 but wooden toys are generally quieter, supporting a calmer playing environment free of the noise (not to mention lights and movement) of many plastic toys.
Wooden toys are perfect for creating new worlds from scratch. Blocks and other wooden toys can be turned into anything a child wants them to be, and can follow a child’s development from simple symbolic play all the way into complex imaginative play. Montessori practitioners (as well as many other educators and caregivers) hold that simple, natural materials often lead to more meaningful and sustained engagement.
Whether children are building a city, zooming a wooden car around, or making a train track that stretches from room to room, they can use their own budding imaginations to build, invent, tinker, make-believe, and create.
They introduce children to math and physics
The original STEM toy, wooden blocks require dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and tons of fine-motor precision to stack and balance. They also support important skills for learning math like pattern matching and recognition.
Because there are no magnets or connecting systems to keep blocks locked together, children must focus on coordinating their hands and eyes to build and balance the different elements. Children learn early physics lessons when a tower topples after the 6th block has been placed on top, or when a ball rolls down a ramp.
There’s a reason wooden toys tend to be the ones most donated, handed down, and inherited. They’re not indestructible, but they are durable—as long as you take care of them.
Montessori encourages young children to explore toys and playthings in their own way; for babies and toddlers, that may involve repeated mouthing, throwing, and rolling. This means safety is an important consideration when choosing playthings: which ones will last and stay safe as they age? Wood is among the safest materials nature provides for babies and children.
Aesthetics may or may not be high on everyone’s list of criteria for toy selection, but beauty does matter—especially when choosing toys that will last. Whether painted, stained, or left natural, wooden playthings, furniture, art, and other objects tend to be visually appealing. The Montessori philosophy holds physical beauty in high regard: clean lines, attractive (but not overly bright) colors, and precise order all promote a calm learning environment. Wooden toys are a natural fit for these spaces, since they’re often stackable, easy to clean up, and attractive to display.
- Why Fewer Toys is the Better Option | Psychology Today
- The Influence of the Number of Toys in the Environment on Toddlers’ Play | Infant Behavior & Development
- Physiological Effects of Touching Wood | National Institutes of Health
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